Fran was the first one to notice what was happening, but by then, it was already too late.
It had all started so innocently. There hadn't seemed to be any harm in Grace's request for a kitten; sure, they might run into a problem or two when Chester came around, but both a fully-grown cat and Chester would be easy to separate even in the worst-case scenario. So they'd gotten their kitten, a sweet little ragdoll that could've been a cotton ball as easily as a cat. And, utterly in love at first sight, Gracie had picked it up, nuzzled it against her cheek, and triggered a catastrophe.
Fran watched as first Grace's face went red, her eyes puffing up and watering as it started, and before anyone knew what to do, Gracie was tossing the kitten back at her father and gasping for breath. Fran had called 911 in a panic, and she would forever be impressed by how quickly an ambulance could show up when a rich heiress needed one.
From there, it had been a blur of doctors and needles and terror, and now Mr. Sheffield was asleep at his daughter's bedside, because apparently when a man have the kind of money that he did, that man's daughter gets a room in the hospital for "observation" after anaphylaxis. Gracie had exhausted, shaken, and sulking all afternoon, and now Fran was waiting for the girl to wake from her nap.
"Fran?" Grace's whisper finally broke the silence of the room, and Fran couldn't hide her frown. The girl's voice sounded horrible, her throat still clearly sore from the swelling earlier. "You awake?"
"Of course, angel," she said, replacing her look of pity with a warm smile. "How ya doing?"
"I've been better."
Fran laughed. "Can you believe a little kitten did all this?" It was clearly the wrong thing to say. Grace looked away from her, and even in the dim light of the room, Fran could see that there were tears glistening in the girl's eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry, Gracie. I didn't mean to make jokes. This is serious."
Grace's lower lip quivered, and Fran watched with a stab of regret as a few tears managed to slip out of her eyes. She was clearly struggling not to cry, but failing at it utterly. "All I wanted..." was all she got out before her voice broke with a small sob, and she shook her head.
Grace sat stiff as a board, her eyes closed tightly; she seemed to be trying to will her tears away. "I just wanted something to keep me company, you know?" she tried again. "You've been so busy with everything. Eve and Jonah... they take up a lot of your time. I thought a cat would..." She cut herself off again. "It was stupid. I guess at least now I know I'm allergic, right?"
"It wasn't stupid, sweetheart!" Fran protested. Her mind flickered to the twins at home with Niles; she hasn't been neglecting the other kids for them, has she? She couldn't bear the thought. "You didn't know this was going to happen, and I always thought you getting a cat was a great idea! But I never meant to make you feel like you weren't as important to me as the twins are. Why didn't you tell me?"
Grace laughed quietly. "No, Fran," she murmured, "it's okay. I get it. They're babies--toddlers, I guess, now. They need a lot of attention, and they're always going to need a lot more of your attention than I do. I just wanted something to call my own, you know? Something that I didn't have to share."
"Oh, sweetie..." Fran leaned forward, pulling her stepdaughter into her arms for a tight squeeze. Grace squeezed back, slightly weaker from her ordeal. "I understand. And so what if a kitten didn't work out?" She grinned. "How would you feel about a puppy?"
Grace just laughed, and at Fran's side, an unsuspecting Maxwell started to snore.